Lone Wolf: Halo Reach and Unhappy Endings

I admit I’m a sucker when it comes to happy endings.

I cheer when the hero saves the day, when the villain gets defeated, and when that couple who bickered throughout the story finally end up together in the end.

Cheesy, I know.

For the most part in story, happy endings are a given.  Even though you don’t know how the good guy or girl is going to win in the end, you pretty much guess they will.  And when the ending comes, you guess right.  The day is saved and the story is over.

But lately stories have been taking a darker twist.  Some have thrown away the “happy ending” all together and have made endings more complex and (in many cases) all out sad.  Even if the hero does save the day, it may come at a great cost.  Even if the villain does get defeated, the damage is already done.  Even if that couple ends up together, someone else’s heart is bound to be broken.

And if you’re like me and played Halo: Reach, you know the story is one of those that practically throws the typical happy ending out the window.

(Spoilers ahead for Halo: Reach if you haven’t played it.)

I admit when my cousin and I first plopped Halo: Reach into the XBox, I had expectations that the ending wasn’t going to be completely happy.  I’m not completely aware of the Halo Universe (I only own ODST and Reach), but I was at least familiar with the history of what Reach was and why it was important.  It was a planet conquered by the enemy Covenant and essentially a battleground, and an ugly one at that.

So my cousin and I ran through the campaign.  We discovered the bad guys.  We helped evacuate civilians.  We drove through the planet escaping tanks (erm…I attempted to drive at least.  My character had a tendency driving off cliffs so I eventually got stuck to the back seat.)

But then the story got darker.  (As if a battlefield isn’t dark enough.)

One by one your teammates fall (except Jun.  What exactly happened to him anyways?)  At the end of the game, after you successfully deliver Cortana to Captain Keyes and an out-cold Master Chief, you come to your final battle.

Lone Wolf.

Oh, that level.  I can’t tell you how many times my cousin and I tried to beat it.  Over and over, we tried to somehow, someway make our characters survive the war.  We were bound and determined to find a way to live on and at least gives ourselves a happy ending to this story.

Of course, I didn’t find out until years later that the level is unbeatable.  Yeah, that burnt and broken helmet at the beginning of the game should’ve been a clue…

But after repeatedly losing on Lone Wolf and coming to grips that no matter how good I am at this game (trust me, I’m not), there is no way that Halo:Reach is going to end happily for my character.  No matter what, he’s going to be offed by some Elite in fancy armor who sounds like he’s saying “NOM NOM NOM” every time he walks.

And that left me feeling a little sad at the game’s end.

The story line was great.  The characters were easy to relate to.  The gameplay was involved and (depending on difficulty) challenging.  But I really wanted my character to survive.  I didn’t want his story to end-I wanted it to continue.

As writers and storytellers, the art of a good ending is a difficult one to create.  We want it to be believable and realistic and an ending that can be remembered by the audience even after the story is finished.  It’s a daunting task as many talented storytellers have created brilliant stories only to fall flat at the end, leaving an audience disappointed.  In some cases, a bad ending can ruin the entire story that came before.

So do unhappy endings make the story bad?

In some cases, yes.  And there are plenty of examples of stories who meet that criteria.  But in the case of Halo:Reach, I would say no.  Though I would’ve loved Noble Six to have survived Reach and went on to become some great hero who fought alongside the Chief, it just wasn’t meant to happen with the overall story.  Six’s sacrifice was meant to be seen as noble and heroic, a person who gave his life to save a planet that wasn’t called home.  The ending was certainly a realistic one, as well.  After all-how many people could survive all alone while surrounded by enemies?

But even though Reach has an unhappy ending, there’s still some hope left at the end.  You learn Noble Six’s sacrifice is remembered.  You know that Cortana being given to the Chief sets in motion events that will lead to Humanity’s winning the war.  You know that Reach will be a peaceful, prosperous planet once again.

It’s that glimpse of hope amidst the unhappy ending that makes the story, and characters, live on.  An unhappy ending with no hope at the end runs a risk of leaving the audience disappointed and down.  And let’s be honest-who wants to feel like that after a story?  The ending may not be happy for Noble Team, but it’s happy for the people they saved who aren’t shown in the story.  Even though I may be sad with Noble Six’s fate, Halo:Reach is still one of my favorite games of all time simply because of the hope that is left at the story’s end.  And that is what sticks with the audience-not just the sacrifice of the characters, but knowing that their sacrifice wasn’t in vain.



2 thoughts on “Lone Wolf: Halo Reach and Unhappy Endings

  1. I loved Halo Reach’s ending 😀 That sort of ending works best when the story demonstrates that some things are more important than life and the characters that die have accomplished those things, eg. Halo Reach and Gladiator. The ending fails when the story doesn’t convince the viewer of that, like The Last Samurai for me, or when it’s just done as an intentional stomach punch to the viewer to make them feel like the ending has emotional power.

    • I hear ya! :). As much as I would’ve loved to have Six survive, I don’t think the story would have been as powerful if the ending was “happier”. I think that’s what makes unhappy endings so tricky-when used correctly, they can make a story really hit the heart. When done poorly (just like how you said-the whole sucker punch to the audience), it can really ruin the story. The unhappy ending needs a purpose to it-without it, the story will probably fall flat.

      But I won’t lie-I still want to beat Lone Wolf. Lol!

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